Behind “Neil Young Trunk Show”: Director Demme on Capturing a Legend in New Film - Rolling Stone
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Behind “Neil Young Trunk Show”: Director Demme on Capturing a Legend in New Film

Neil Young Trunk Show, the second in Jonathan Demme’s planned film trilogy on the legendary rocker, is an unconscious, raw, in-the-moment concert movie that respects the immediacy of creativity and the creator. Partway through the follow-up to the 2006 doc Heart of Gold, Young launches into “No Hidden Path” and 20 blistering minutes later he ends. The “scene” draws you in as much as any high-speed car chase in an action thriller. “It’s gotta be the longest song ever in a movie. It’s gotta be,” says Demme, in a sit-down interview with Rolling Stone this week during the Toronto International Film Festival, where Trunk Show screened for free outdoors at Yonge-Dundas Square.

“I always tell people, absolutely and sincerely, if you’re not a Neil Young fan, don’t waste your time,” Demme adds. “Second of all, if you don’t love electric guitar, don’t go. Because of ‘No Hidden Path,’ you’ve got to be there for electric guitar. It’s got to speak to you in order to get what that’s all about.”

Demme, whose dramatic films includes the Academy Award-winning Philadelphia and Silence of the Lambs, recalls the time Trunk Show screened as a work-in-progress at the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain a year ago. He counted 40 walk-outs during “No Hidden Path.” “But then [this] song in a movie got a standing ovation from the 1,860 people that didn’t walk out,” he boasts.

Trunk Show is subtitled “scenes from a concert,” specifically from a pair of shows Young performed at the 1927-built Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, as part of his intimate Chrome Dreams II theater tour in 2007. Onstage, he performed a full acoustic set, followed by a full electric one with bandmates Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, Ralph Molina, Anthony “Sweetpea” Crawford and wife Pegi Young. He also had painter Eric Johnson creating on-the-spot works for each song. The stage was cluttered with “pre-digital” items, including a fan, DNC camera, and telephone.

Demme knew the set list, but says nothing was planned for the film. “Neil trusts me,” he says. Shot on hand-held cameras (HDCam, HDV and Super-8mm), Demme’s team included director of photography Declan Quinn (Rachel Getting Married, Leaving Las Vegas) and camera operators he’s worked with before. He calls Young’s sound crew “scientists” and “brilliant.” Besides “little tweaks” to the mix of the movie and “a bit of fill light here and there,” he says, “what you see is what you get.”

Unlike the as-is sequence of Heart of Gold, for Trunk Show Demme jumbled the set list: the rare (“Mexico,” “Kansas,” “The Sultan”), the classics (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “After the Gold Rush,” “Like a Hurricane”) and more recent (“No Hidden Path,” “The Believer”), and interspersed a few offstage moments to “ventilate the visuals” from the “claustrophobic indoors on the stage.” Those included Young’s entry to the Tower from a garbage-filled alley and the removal of a hangnail in his dressing room “He is completely unvain,” says Demme.

But it’s the music and the performances that are truly mesmerizing in the film, from the naked beauty of the acoustic songs to the all-out grit and electricity of the band numbers. “The first time I showed it to him, it was a lot like what it is now — a couple of songs changed — Neil just sat there and he was like, ‘My God, I don’t know what to say.’ He was amazed at himself. That made me so happy,” says Demme, grinning. “I feel like Neil got to see what we who love him see. I think he was blown away at what he does up there. I think he saw how hard he works, how much he gives to the process and it was Neil Young speechless which you never get to see. Neil’s got something to say about everything.

“Also, he was really happy the film seemed to suggest that there are ghosts of performance past in a theater like this,” Demme says. “Again, with the old-fashioned lighting that he used and all this old fashioned equipment, he really wanted to honor performance. He was amazed we were able to get the painter in it. So that’s his idea about honoring creativity in the myriad ways that we can be creative.”

So does one say Trunk Show is a great film or Young is great? “The film bears witness to his greatness,” Demme prefers. “The film isn’t great. The film is just a film. He’s great. The film wants to become one with him.”

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